Hackers and computer hacking have become important narratives in academia and popular media. These discussions have frequently portrayed hackers as deviant, framing them ethnocentrically within North Atlantic societies. Recently, however, events such as the politicisation of hacking through ‘hacktivism’ and those who hack for humanitarian causes have forced us to reconsider such typologies, although the body of empirical research in such areas remains relatively sparse.
The aim of this paper is to present the findings of an ethnographic study carried out during a hacking event in 2012 which focused upon those involved in ‘Humanitarian Hacking’. Online and offline research explored the events that hackers took part in, the technologies they produced and the individuals involved. Based around the ‘Humanitarian Hacking’ event, this paper explores the motivations of participants, contrasting against previous studies and theory, particularly the idea of a ‘hacker ethic’; the extent to which these groups comprise a ‘community’ and its nature; and finally the social shaping of the technological artefacts produced by these groups. These three themes are explored together as they were often interlinked and provide interesting insights into the nature of this group.
Drawing upon the works of previous researchers including Gabriella Coleman, Christopher Kelty and Pekka Himanen, the author will provide ethnographic evidence which demonstrates that not only is the ‘hacker ethic’ an important element within narratives of open-source technology, but that elements of it are also increasingly seen in wider areas of society from open-data to crowd-sourcing to the Anonymous movement. By tracing the historical origins and context of ‘Humanitarian Hacking’ and exploring their practices, this paper seeks to explore something of the motivations behind this activity. By doing so, it will reveal the wider symbolic significance of hacking within a ‘network society’ in which informational networks hold a central role, and in which the ability of hackers to manipulate such networks can be both feared and revered.
Such groups present a methodological challenge for ethnographers since they are multi-sited, mobile, and take place both online and offline. This paper therefore draws upon practices in the social sciences including internet ethnography, multi-sited studies, ‘shadowing’ actors and ‘following’ technologies as cultural artefacts. The hackers engaged with in this project were often themselves academics, with research taking place within the ethnographers ‘own tribe’ and the degree of separation between fieldwork and ‘everyday life’ constantly blurred. This made a more participatory style of ethnography essential and challenged pre-existing notions of ‘the field’.